The cross spun through the air like a small silver propeller, catching the light of the winter sun on its smooth surface with each turn. Gravity pulled the cross down until it punctured the turquoise sea below.
‘In the River Jordan, Lord, I baptise Thee,’ chanted a bearded man dressed, as tradition dictated for such occasions, in blue.
The metal object sank, its shimmer still visible from above the waves. All at once the skin of the water was again ripped open as a young man plunged in. The sea was cold against his lean body, but his thoughts were on the task in hand. His eyes were fixed on the cross beneath him and, with the strength of youth in his limbs, he pushed himself downward in pursuit.
Deeper sank the cross, the sun’s reflected glory diminishing.
Within seconds the agile young man was upon the cross, reaching out underneath it to break its fall. He gripped firmly and allowed himself a moment’s satisfaction before kicking upwards to complete his mission. Finally, a triumphant fist broke the surface of the sea, clenching the silver prize.
I was on a Piccadilly Line underground train packed with fellow commuters heading into town. I’d managed to secure a seat for once and wanted to believe that today things might continue to go my way – maybe I’d get that pay rise. Most people on the train were hidden behind their newspapers. One man, standing in front of me and swaying from a handle, peered down at me occasionally. I noted he was dressed inadequately for the weather in an ill-fitting pin-striped suit.
At the next station a few more passengers squeezed into our carriage. They included an attractive young woman who, judging from the bulge in her overcoat, was pregnant. She ended up pressed against the man in the pin-stripes. Instinctively, I rose to offer the woman my seat, and there was relief and gratitude in her blushing face.
I found myself looking down and smiling at her as our train rattled into the tunnel.
Erden had settled comfortably in his favourite spot. He was propped against an old, old olive tree at the top of a hill. A baby goat, hardy and lean, was sprawled on his lap, sleeping peacefully. Breathing in and out, the goat generated a soothing warmth to go with its reassuring heartbeat. The rest of Erden’s flock were around their goatherd chomping at shrubs and wild grass, bleating their apparent contentment. Goats were such dependable creatures, thought Erden, so unconditionally devoted. He drew strength from that devotion. Humans, by contrast, were too selfish and unreliable.
From this high vantage point Erden had a panoramic view of the whole village, stretched out before him, less than half a mile away. It was a familiar site. Home. To the left, Erden could make out the bell tower of the church of Saint Varnavas the Apostle; to the right, the minaret of the small village mosque. And, dotted around them, the whitewashed houses belonging to devoted followers of either religion, as well as the more numerous not-so-devoted followers. From Erden’s point of view all the houses looked the same. It was only when you got closer that you sensed things weren’t as they should be. Erden didn’t like getting too close. It was safer and more peaceful up here against the olive tree.
However, on this particular day, as the light began to fade, the developing differences in the village appeared to have been set aside. A concoction of lively sounds carried through the evening air and up to Erden’s appreciative ear. Below, on the main road into the village, the goatherd could see people from other villages approaching. The festival had begun, and all were coming to share in the harmony. All except Erden.
Erden leant back, until his head rested against the bark of the olive tree. He recalled that some time ago he’d used his knife to carve two names into it, his own and that of a local girl. A rare beauty, now in full bloom. She was slender, with a rich complexion, straight brown hair and striking green eyes. How Erden longed for her. He glanced down and could still make out the now fading letters of her name.
Some years ago Erden had rescued her younger brother Zeki after the boy had fallen from a tree. If it hadn’t been for Erden carrying him to the village’s Christian doctor the boy might have died. In the event, Zeki’s leg had been damaged beyond repair. But at least Zeki had lived, and for that people had Erden to thank. Funda had Erden to thank. And she did so by always showing kindness to the goatherd. More kindness than some of the others showed.
Erden smiled. How wonderful Funda was. How she enjoyed getting attention. No doubt she’d be singing tonight. She was a born performer with the voice of an angel. Erden knew some of the bolder boys of the village were now showing a keen interest. And it wasn’t just the Muslims who were attracted to her. How could a poor, simple goatherd compete? Some of these young men had well-paid jobs, in administration, in construction, in the auxiliary police. It was surely only a matter of time before one lucky young man’s family would make Funda’s father the right proposition, only a matter of time before Erden’s heart would be broken for good.
* * *
Andonis returned from inside the now crowded coffee-shop with a tray containing two small cups of thick coffee and two tall glasses of water. He saw that Nigos had sat at a table near the door with a backgammon set in front of him. Andonis frowned and gestured to his friend to join him at another free table with a clear view of the square, the focus of this evening’s festivities. Nigos raised his hands to indicate his reluctance to move; but after a moment he went over and sat opposite Andonis, bringing with him the backgammon set, and sighing deeply. Andonis sat facing the square, now thronging with people. The usual sellers were offering the people a variety of delicacies. Shamishin, melomagarona and sticks of sujukos.
Small crowds had gathered around numerous performers. Two older men squared up for a traditional chatisman, a battle of wits through poetry and music. Each clever riposte was greeted with hoots and laughter from the audience, which Andonis noticed included Nigos’s brother Yannis and his betrothed Martha, though in truth the pair appeared more interested in each other than in the chatisman. Yannis looked for any excuse to touch Martha: to wipe a blemish from her cheek, to remove a loose thread from her blouse. She was happy to oblige him.
A group of younger men performed acrobatic dances to whistles and clapping from a different audience, which Andonis noticed included Nigos’s sister Stella. She was with her friends, and they were clicking their fingers and taking up provocative poses. Stella was a petite, pretty girl, with long dark hair and a distinctive mole on her cheek which always drew Andonis’ss eyes. Andonis was aware that Stella had an admirer, a largish boy called Lugas from a neighbouring village. Lugas was innocently flirting with her this evening. Andonis was happy for Stella, though he knew, in truth, she would rather have been flirting with him.
At the far side of the square a Garagiozis show was under way, delighting a crowd of children.
People who passed by the coffee-shop acknowledged young Andonis, the tailor, as the man who’d retrieved the cross from the sea earlier that day. As was customary, they congratulated him and wished him long life. With a proud smile the tailor thanked them, shaking hands and revelling in his moment of glory. He noticed, however, that Nigos was becoming increasingly irritated.
After the pair had finally been left alone, Nigos took out some tobacco and started rolling himself a cigarette. He offered the tobacco and papers to Andonis, who declined. Nigos huffed and ran a hand through his unruly black hair.
‘What’s wrong, Nigo?’ asked Andonis, looking at his friend with concern. Nigos’s frown didn’t suit his chiselled features.
‘Nothing,’ lied Nigos, lighting his cigarette and blowing smoke into the tailor’s face.
‘Yes, I know your “nothing”. Those hunched shoulders, the knotted brow, the invisible lower lip. Why is “nothing” having this effect on you?’ asked Andonis affectionately. Today the tailor could solve any problem.
‘I just don’t think it’s right, Andoni,’ Nigos explained, gesturing to the crowds in the square. ‘People singing and dancing and laughing. Not the way things are.’
‘Would you rather they cried instead of laughed?’
‘Until we’re free, what’s there to laugh about?’
Andonis smiled mischievously. ‘Let’s rejoice, Nigo. For isn’t today the day the Lord was baptised in the River Jordan?’
Nigos scoffed. ‘Since when did you believe in all that nonsense the priest chants?’
‘It makes my mamma and my brother happy. And look at all the people, Nigo. It makes them happy. Why can’t we be happy too?’
‘You don’t have to live with what I have to live with.’
Andonis sighed. ‘Come on. Let it go a while. Let yourself go a while,’ he urged, tapping his friend fondly on the shoulder. Nigos looked at Andonis, and though Nigos’s mouth gave way to a smile, his frown remained.
‘You’re just jealous that your friend’s the brave hero tonight,’ teased Andonis.
‘Brave enough to take me on at tavlin, then?’ challenged Nigos, opening up the backgammon set.
Andonis indicated his reluctance to play by raising his eyebrows and lifting his chin. Nigos could not disguise his disappointment, but his friend ignored it. Andonis was too preoccupied with the scene in the square, and in particular with the young Muslim woman who had just arrived, accompanied by a boy hobbling on a pair of wooden crutches.
The girl wore a long red skirt down to her ankles and a white, long-sleeved blouse. She had full red lips and straight brown hair mostly hidden by a white headscarf. Andonis’ss heart pumped. She had been there at the shore earlier that day when he’d dived into the sea. She had been there afterwards to kiss him on either cheek and to wish him a long life. In better times his father used to get his beard shaved and his hair cut at her father’s barber’s shop. In better times his father and hers had been friends.
The girl’s voice was famous in the village. She was always at such public gatherings, singing to raise extra money for her family so that they might secure a better future for her crippled brother.
The girl bent down and laid a small wooden box on the ground before her. Then, without fear or embarrassment, she broke into song, accompanied after a moment by the boy, who blew inexpertly into a harmonica with the broadest of smiles. The exquisite voice of the sister more than compensated for the musical clumsiness of the brother and soon a large audience had gathered. The pair were performing a traditional folk song, popular at weddings, to the delight of the people, the majority of whom clapped along, reminded of better times.
My sweet and slender basil, my marjoram so fair,
You’re the one who’ll cause me to leave my mother’s care.
Andonis was entranced. The song was one his late paternal grandmother Maria always used to sing, in the sweet Cypriot vernacular, adopted as her own. A song which, so the story went, Andonis’ss grandfather had used to win Maria’s heart and bring her to the island.
‘What are you looking at, Andoni?’ sneered Nigos, turning his head to observe the performance. Then he glanced back at his friend and shook his head. Nigos took a long and loud sip of his coffee, which annoyed Andonis.
‘Be quiet, Nigo. I’m listening,’ implored Andonis, not taking his eyes off the performance. ‘Doesn’t she sing beautifully?’
‘What?’ cried Nigos with disdain. Nigos raised a hand and clicked his fingers in front of his friend’s face. ‘Are you all right, man? Wake up! Leave the Turkish girl to beg, and let’s play tavlin.’
Andonis pushed his friend’s hand aside to clear his view. The girl had now finished her song and people were dropping coins into the box. She took her brother’s hand and directed applause towards him. The pair smiled and bowed.
‘Better shoes from home, even if they’re tattered,’ observed Nigos, quoting an old proverb.
‘She is from home!’ declared the tailor.
Nigos shook his head. Both young men continued to observe the girl.
‘Look at those eyes, look at those lips,’ said Andonis. ‘Tell me she’s not the most beautiful girl in the whole village.’
‘For goodness sake, Andoni. Stop playing games,’ cautioned Nigos. ‘Some people might not appreciate them.’
Nigos was unsure whether he was more concerned about people or his own sister, Stella. He dragged at his cigarette self-consciously.
Andonis picked up his cup, slurped down the remaining coffee, and gave a satisfied gasp before wiping his lips with the back of his hand. Then he looked at Nigos, and his eyes narrowed. Nigos looked hurt when Andonis rose from his chair.
‘What about our game of tavlin?’ Nigos enquired.
‘I’m through playing games,’ announced Andonis, though as much to himself as to his friend.
He picked up his glass of water, took a gulp from it, then made his way over to where the Muslim girl was now preparing to entertain the crowd with another song. The people gathered there acknowledged the fine young man who’d retrieved the cross from the sea with nods and smiles and pats on the back.
Andonis’s eyes met those of the Muslim girl for a brief moment, and he smiled his glowing smile. She couldn’t help but offer a hint of a smile in return. True, the girl smiled at everyone. The more Funda smiled, the more coins for the box. But Andonis felt he knew this smile. It seemed to be reserved for him.
Andonis nudged Funda’s brother and pointed to the instrument in the boy’s hands. The boy understood and handed over the harmonica. Andonis nodded his thanks, ruffled the boy’s hair with affection, and placed the harmonica to his lips.
Funda had begun singing the famous breeches song, and Andonis now accompanied her. He played expertly, and the people began to clap in time to the music with even more enthusiasm than before. Funda looked at Andonis while she sang and gave him a nod of approval. Andonis nodded back.
O! With forty yards of cotton cloth, with forty yards of cotton cloth,
They made, they made, they made a pair of breeches.
O! The crutch it dangled very long, the crutch it dangled very long,
And swept, and swept, and swept the lower reaches.
Now playing with only one hand, Andonis contorted himself so that he could roll his trousers up to his knees with the other hand. Then he loosened his belt, pulling his shirt out and allowing his trousers to drop so they appeared baggy around the crutch – like a pair of breeches. Andonis was now dancing round and round as he played. And as he did so his trousers fell further for an amused and delighted crowd. People were whistling their approval.
The poor old pair of breeches, which sweep the lower reaches.
And who will take them for you, down to the lake to wash them?
And who is going to lay them to dry out in the hot sun?
And where’s the able woman who’ll iron out the creases?
And who will fold them for you, your long and dangly breeches?
Andonis looked over towards the coffee-shop and waved to his sulking friend. Nigos shook his head in disbelief.
O! Instead of marrying a man, instead of marrying a man
Who is, who is, who is in trousers striding.
O! Prefer to wed a breeches man, prefer to wed a breeches man,
Though he, though he, though he can’t earn a farthing.
Funda and Andonis had finished their performance to applause, cheers and bravos. Andonis grabbed Funda’s hand and offered her to the audience. She took her bow before offering Andonis in turn. More and more coins were being thrown into the box and onto the ground.
The tailor fumbled inside his pockets looking for coins of his own, but all he could find was a brass thimble, one given to him by his late grandmother Maria. He pulled it out and looked at it a moment before presenting it to the Muslim girl. Funda blushed and looked across to her brother for approval. The crippled boy smiled, and so she accepted the tailor’s offering.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said graciously.
‘The best a humble tailor can offer, I’m afraid,’ he replied.
‘What wind has blown to bring you here?’ she whispered coyly, as if to herself as much as to Andonis.
‘The one that led to you,’ replied the tailor with a smile which made Funda go weak. She looked at Andonis with warmth and a hint of trepidation.
Meanwhile the crowd was beginning to disperse. Not quite all the people had approved of Andonis’ss antics. Andonis had noted that one man in particular, a powerful man of the village, had tutted loudly. And Stella had not been impressed either. Nor of course had Nigos.
Funda’s attention was diverted by a gasp from her brother. The boy was looking up at a tall and lanky red-haired figure who had just thrown a ten-shilling note into the box. Funda rushed over to her brother and smothered him in a hug. Then she gave the man a polite smile of gratitude before crouching to collect the large number of coins which had missed the box. Her brother joined her.
Andonis looked at the man. He was clearly an Englezos, in his forties and with a bushy moustache not unlike that of Andonis’s father – except this one was the colour of earth. Then Andonis recognised the man. He’d seen him once or twice, at Mr Vasos’s coffee-shop, in a soldier’s uniform.
‘You’re too generous, sir,’ Andonis observed, addressing the Englezos in perfect English and with perfect English irony. The man raised a pair of earth-coloured eyebrows in surprise.
‘Your English is most impressive,’ he acknowledged in a manner which Andonis recognised as innocently patronising. The Englezos’s steel blue eyes pierced Andonis’ss.
‘Better, I expect, than your command of my language,’ replied Andonis proudly. ‘I was good at school, sir.’
The Englezos nodded.
‘I must tell you how much I enjoyed your performance. You and the Turkish girl work well together. It’s nice to see,’ he declared.
‘Our people have worked well together for a long time, sir. It’s only when outsiders come and...’ Andonis checked himself. How could an Englezos even begin to understand?
‘Well I, at least, am one outsider who appreciates the harmony I’ve witnessed this evening,’ continued the Englezos, maintaining his dignified manner.
Andonis felt ashamed, and lowered his head. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he found himself saying apologetically, almost deferentially.
The Englezos nodded and disappeared into the crowd.
Back to the top